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From New Orleans to Panama and back

By December 21, 2005travel

My recent visit to Panama was very interesting, especially after living in post-Katrina ravaged New Orleans.  For those readers who may not know, I lived in Panama for about 4 years when I was a kid.  Basically, I went to high school in Panama after my mother, who was Panamanian, summarily hauled my brother and I there one summer.  For the first two years that I lived there I hated it.  Panama was, to my young mind, a backwards country.  There were only a few TV stations, most of which were spanish soap operas with a smattering of old U.S. shows that had been dubbed into Spanish (you’ve not lived until you’ve seen an episode of the Flintstones in Spanish). Today, Panama has all of the conveniences and technological marvels of any major U.S. city.  And right now it has more economic promise than many U.S. cities, particularly New Orleans.

Everywhere you look in Panama you see buildings being constructed.  It reminds me of New York in a weird kind of way. In fact, there is a plan to build a 102 story building on the shoreline of the Bay of Panama, next to the Pacific Ocean.  This would be the largest building in Central America, and it’s not even going to be an office building; it will be a condominium building.  But business is booming in Panama too.  The stock of a Panamaian airline, COPA Airlines, recently went public on the New York Stock Exchange and the share price soared.  The tourism industry is a huge part of the economic boom, and Panamanians are working hard to publicize this fact and to attract more tourism.  Ecotourism is but one part of the picture.  Panama is also attractive to retirees, especially the area known as Boquete which is near the Costa Rican border.

In fact, I can attest to how attractive Panama is as a retirement destination with this personal vignette. My brother took me to a place about an hour outside of Panama City where he is building a beach house.  While we were there surveying his property we ran into the property developer who was showing the area to some prospective customers.  One was a  young guy named Steve, a british fellow who lives in New York and works as an investment banker.  Steve, it seems, met a guy in a bar who told him about how wonderful Panama was.   And so a year or so ago Steve visited Panama and liked it so much that he bought a condominium in the city. Now he is engaged to be married and planning on retiring from his hectic job.  Guess where he is planning on spending his significant retirement wealth?  Steve and his fiancee will not have trouble finding English-speaking friends who are similarly situated.  Many are already living in Panama, and more are on the way.

Obviously, beyond tourism, another (and more well-known) resource is the Panama Canal, through which about 1,000 ships pass each month.  The Canal, which was completed in 1914, is being modernized; and this is a billion dollar project, which will obviously create many great economic opportunities.  Incidentally, if you haven’t read David McCollugh’s The Path Between The Seas then you should.  It’s a wonderful account of American ingenuity and engineering prowess (something that I long for a resurgence of as I drive around New Orleans these days).

Panama is a much different country than it was when I left there in 1977, right after Jimmy Carter signed the Treaty that returned control of the canal to the Panamanians.  I remember thinking that, without the influence and mass wealth of the United States to guide it, Panama would lapse into economic ruin (even after spending 5 years in a Panamanian school I still suffered from cultural bias that clouded my vision).  Panama now has all the modern conveniences that one would expect in any major U.S. city.  Everywhere you drive you see signs for Blockbuster video, McDonalds, TGIFridays, Popeyes.  Sitting in my father’s 17th story condominium watching CNN, while wirelessly surfing the Internet it was hard to feel like I was in a place that many people regard as a third world country.  One mile in front of me was the Pacific Ocean framed by modern buildings and a perfectly blue sky.  Ten feet behind me was a cheerful maid, eager to bring any food or beverage I might yearn for.

When I got home to New Orleans, I asked my friend Vincent if anythinng new had happened in New Orleans while I was gone.  His face perked up and said, yes actually there were a couple of important developments.  "What’s that?" I eagerly inquired.   "Oh, a couple of those blinking stop lights on Magazine Street have finally been fixed," he responded. 

"Yes, it’s good to be back home" I muttered as I blankely stared  at images of an old sitcom rerun on the TV screen.

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